'No-nonsense' officer takes command of station in crime-ridden city district

August 16, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

Maj. Alvin A. Winkler packed the last of his boxes yesterday morning and moved out of the Eastern District station he has commanded since 1988, taking with him a plaque that reads, "It takes two years to get results."

His replacement, 25-year veteran Maj. Odis L. Sistrunk Jr., already sitting at his new desk, and concerned that an officer didn't handle a call properly over the weekend, looked up from paperwork and countered, "We're going to beat that record."

He has a daunting task ahead of him.

The Eastern District recorded more homicides -- 83 -- and more shootings -- at least 500 -- than any other area of the city in 1993. The district also had the most homicides -- 32 -- through the first six months of 1994; shooting statistics were unavailable.

To help bring those numbers down, police swept through two drug-ridden neighborhoods -- Midway and Middle East -- with highly publicized raids this year to reclaim street corners from drug dealers and allow residents to venture outside without fear of violence.

Major Sistrunk, 45, said his first task is to clean the streets of the prospering drug trade. And he has given himself little leeway.

"If the district succeeds, then I succeed," said Major Sistrunk, a former Western District shift lieutenant and most recently head of the Neighborhood Patrol Bureau. "If the district fails, it is my failure. I guess that's pressure. But it's something you deal with every day."

Yesterday was Major Sistrunk's first day at the Eastern District; the popular and visible Major Winkler was transferred to head the Traffic Division as part of a shake-up in the police commissioner's command staff.

"It is hard to leave," Major Winkler said. "I love this district and the community. . . . I am not burned out. I have a lot of enthusiasm for this job."

Lucille Gorham, president of the Middle East Community Association and president of the Police Community Relations Council, said she hopes the new commander "keeps an open mind. None of us wants Major Winkler to leave. He was good.

But as Major Sistrunk told one resident who was bemoaning the transfer yesterday, "Show your respect and your love for him, but I'm your man now."

And a large man, at that.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke described Major Sistrunk, who stands 6 1/2 -feet tall and weighs 290 pounds, as "one big dude."

But friends describe him as soft-spoken and sensitive. "I don't think there is an individual who doesn't like him," said Maj. Victor Gregory, a colleague who has known Major Sistrunk for 18 years.

Maj. Bert Shirey, the Northeastern District commander who worked with Major Sistrunk for several years, cautioned that officers should not misinterpret that style.

"He is no-nonsense," Major Shirey said. "If he wants something done, he's going to get it done if he has to drag the whole district behind him."

That was evident yesterday morning, when he demanded to see the report of an officer who had been dispatched to investigate teen-agers who were driving a car with a handicapped license plate, but had failed to follow up on the caller's suspicions that the car was stolen.

"I'm getting ahold of the officer's sergeant and will make him responsible for supervising his people," Major Sistrunk said. "If the officer doesn't handle the call right, I'm going to get the sergeant to do it."

Major Winkler, sitting on a couch in what used to be his office, laughed in agreement with the way his replacement handled the situation.

"Now you are seeing what it takes to be a real district commander," Major Winkler said. "You listen to the radio when you are off. Your officers don't know you listen to the radio. It may not make you a nice guy with some."

And with that, the two majors took off on tour. They visited com

munity leaders, politicians and ministers, swinging through neighborhoods as though they were on patrol again. They watched officers arrest a drug suspect and questioned a man whose friend ran down an alley when he saw their police car.

Along the way, they met many people who didn't want Major Winkler to leave, leaving Major Sistrunk to repeatedly explain that programs and contacts will remain in place.

"I want to be as good a commander as he was or better, so nobody can say, 'See, that move should have never taken place,' " Major Sistrunk told state Sen. Nathan C. Irby, who represents East Baltimore.

Major Sistrunk said that community policing, which started in the Eastern District, will remain, but that drug dealers must be cleared from the streets before it can be fully implemented. "You can't work with community groups when their neighborhoods are under siege."

He knows the job will be tough. Major Sistrunk, who admitted stumbling through his first roll call with officers yesterday morning, constantly worries about his performance.

"I don't know all the answers," he said. "I criticize myself more than anyone else does. I wonder if I did the right thing and if I said the right thing. But I give 110 percent. I think that makes up for everything else."

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